Reflective Essay on "Buddha" Poems

"Considering Elsa" by Bob Nolan

(View "Buddha")

For the final project in English 601, Textual Criticism, I was assigned to revise and edit the contents of Series III, Box 1, Folder 27 of the Hornbake Library's Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (EvFL) collection, a poem entitled "Buddha." The poem, dated as ca. 1926-1927 by the library staff, survives in two complete manuscript versions (the notebook "HERALD" version and the unbound "INSIDEINFORMATION" version) and one loose fragment (the "TINHORN" sheet).

Although we are not (thankfully) copying the manuscripts by hand, the danger of editorial corruption remains very real. The question then becomes: how do we edit the unpublished (and possibly unfinished) poem without corrupting the work?

The first major editorial problem arose immediately upon viewing the contents of the folder. There was no "final" published version of the poem, no typeset page, no identifiable authoritative version. The INSIDEINFORMATION version was initialed by EvFL, but the manuscript contained several rewrites and a fairly substantial array of proofreader marks. Aside from the dubious initials, there is no internal evidence to suggest which (if either) of the versions was intended for publication. A brief glimmer of hope was offered by Irene Gammel, who noted in her biography that EvFL published a poem called "Buddha" in the January, 1920 edition of The Little Review; however, a reading of the published "Buddha" reveals that the two poems are not related. In the end, both "complete" versions of the poem (indeed, calling the TINHORN sheet "incomplete" creates a problem of its own) could easily stand as the authoritative edition.

The situation is similar to a problem raised in Derek Pearsall's work on the Canterbury Tales manuscripts. "What the manuscripts tell us constantly," he writes, "is that the Canterbury Tales are unfinished – never released or even prepared for publication, and with the stages of revision and recomposition manifest in the surviving manuscripts" (32). Pearsall is commenting not on the author's holograph (assuming there was one), but on manuscripts that have been touched (or, some say, corrupted) by scribes and editors, who made conscious efforts to arrange the tales in what they considered to be the best possible order. The problem that he relates is that editors of scholarly editions "tend to treat the text as if it were Chaucer delivered," despite the fact that "Chaucer left only a half-assembled kit with no directions."

Like Chaucer, EvFL has left a half-assembled kit with few directions. The major difference, of course, is that we are working from the author's holograph. The poems in Folder 27 are in EvFL's own hand, untouched and uncorrupted by an outside editor. Pearsall was dealing with the end results of an attempt to complete the half-assembled kit for public consumption (the bound and often finely decorated Canterbury Tales manuscripts). The editorial interference presents the modern scholar from reaching the work that is genuinely Chaucer. Here, we have no such barrier separating us from the author's intentions. We can say with certainty that both versions, at one point in time or another, served as "Buddha," and that the poems presented in the holographs are the work, finalized or abandoned, of EvFL. Because we cannot distinguish which version is authoritative, we must present them all with equal weight.

Although the removal of this editorial barricade solves one problem, it creates a far more insidious one. The editorial corruption has not been introduced into our working copies, so we need not fear the invisible hand of another party interfering with the work of EvFL. However, in editing the work, we must be cautious not to let our own invisible hand interfere with the text. By working from the author's holograph, we, in effect, become the scribes and editors that give Pearsall so much pause. Although we are not (thankfully) copying the manuscripts by hand, the danger of editorial corruption remains very real. The question then becomes: how do we edit the unpublished (and possibly unfinished) poem without corrupting the work?

According to Pearsall, this may be an impossible task. He clearly states that "every act of editorial intervention is an act of appropriation," regardless of how innocuous the intervention may seem. A word altered or left alone, a comma placed or misplaced, or a line break introduced can all have profound effects on the reception of the work, and all serve to separate the edited text from the author. The simple changing of a misspelling, for example, "STRENgHT" to "STRENGTH" in the HERALD version (a common typo automatically fixed by most modern word processors) may inadvertently lead the reader astray.

Pearsall raises the specific example of capitalization (33). Though his example is drawn specifically from Piers Plowman, his admonition of the "prison house of modern typographical practice," should be heeded when working with EvFL. At first glance, the manuscripts of "Buddha" seem to be written in block capital letters. However, a closer examination of EvFL's handwriting reveals that the characters "g," "n," and "y" appear to be miniscule. Often times, these characters cause crashes, when the stem of the "g" or "y" crosses the next line of text, creating a jumble of characters that can prove difficult to decipher. As editors, we must make a decision to either reproduce her handwriting or to standardize the usage throughout.

This decision is not as simple as it first appears. First and foremost, we must decide whether the typeset brings any significance to bear on the text, and whether altering the typeset will introduce any new significance. We must also decide between ease of use and remaining faithful to the original (and, ultimately, whether STANDARDIZED CAPITALIZATION is, in fact, easier than READIng THE ORIgInAL TyPESET). Because the answers are not completely clear, we fall into Pearsall's trap: in "absence of systematic capitalization," we the modern editors have to differentiate. By imposing our decision, we affect the reception of the text.

This can prove particularly difficult when dealing with the modern e-mail or text messenger reader, who may be accustomed to reading an all-majuscule typeset as "yelling," "loud," or "angry." EvFL did not compose this poem for an audience schooled in the lingo and mannerisms of the internet, but the fact remains that the intended audience for the edited poem is an internet user, presumably wise to the ways of the web (at least wise enough to find the poems posted on the Hornbake Library web site). Although the poem, with its dashes, underlines, and line breaks, can read like a musical composition, EvFL did not provide an indication (fortissimo or otherwise) of how the poem should be read aloud. In this regard, the medium can influence the message, creating an effect that was never intended.

Although the internet has created that particular problem, which must be considered while editing the manuscripts, the internet can help to solve several other difficulties. Perhaps most applicable to EvFL is the reproduction of color. There are no fewer than three distinct colors on the manuscripts of Buddha: red, green, and black. The HERALD and TINHORN manuscripts are fairly straightforward in their use of color; the main text is written in black ink, and corrections are introduced in green. On the other hand, the INSIDEINFORMATION manuscript explodes with color: the main text is written in green, and the punctuation (the dashes, periods, underlines, etc.) and corrections are added in red ink. Reproducing these colors in a paper-based format raises a major economic issue (how can the colors be reproduced without raising the production costs of the book beyond marketability) that is sure to weigh heavily on the mind of modern publishers (and, by extension, editors). With the advent of the internet, the economic problem disappears (there is no expensive ink to use).

The internet can also address our concern that, despite our best efforts, the text of Buddha will get lost in a fog of editorial alterations and corrections. Pearsall notes the "need to be conscious... that behind every text presented in a modern edition... there lies a spoil-heap of the manuscripts from which it has been drawn" (33). As mentioned by Delany and Landow (5), the internet allows for the presentation of the spoil-heap of manuscripts on the same stage as the edited scholarly edition. The reader can turn from the edited text to a transcription of the manuscript or even to an electronic copy of the manuscript itself, and can examine the original manuscripts with "all the care that an archaeologist would devote to a midden" (Pearsall, 33). A reader far from College Park, Maryland, could have access to the manuscripts along side the scholarly edited edition, and would be able to assess the part in relation to the whole. Our editorial fog, then, becomes easy to navigate.

The ability to faithfully reproduce and provide all relevant materials raises a final concern: that the safety net of availability will lead to carelessness and laziness in scholarly editing (perhaps an extension of the erosion of language mentioned by Bikerts). The availability of materials makes it more imperative that we remain to the text. Our reputations as editors depend on it. Editing, as Bowers said, "is not for sissies" (2). The power of the internet does not release us from our responsibilities as scholarly editors. We must remain diligent our search for the texts that never were, but should have been.

Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading In an Electronic Age. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Bowers, Fredson. "Unfinished Business." Text 4 (1988): 1-11.

Delany, Paul and George P. Landow. "Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Literary Studies: the State of the Art." IN Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Eds. Paul Delany and George P. Landow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. 3-19.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity, A Cultural Biography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

Pearsall, Derek. "The Uses of Manuscripts: Late Medieval English." Harvard Library Bulletin New Series 4:4 (Winter 1993-94): 30-36.

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